Let’s play a round of the world’s worst game: Can You Be a Feminist and…? The rules, laid down by generations of opinion writers, are that you find a thing and then bloviate airily about whether that thing is compatible with being a feminist. There are some reliable old standbys to start with: CYBAF and wear high heels? (Yes.) CYBAF and a stay-at-home mum? (Yes.) This is easy. Let’s do a harder one. CYBAF and a man? Well I’d hope so, but if I’m absolutely honest the number of men I’ve met who are actually feminist is dwarfed by the number of men who call themselves feminist and then use this as cover to act like a perfect horse’s arse towards women. Try this: CYBAF, and a man, and go to a lapdancing club, and get handsy with the dancers? We have a winner. GAME OVER, ruptured irony gland stopped play, no one can ever play CYBAF again.
You can thank Maajid Nawaz, Liberal Democrat candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, for the demise of the world’s worst game. Last Friday, the Mail released CCTV footage of Nawaz — Muslim moderate and (yes!) self-professed feminist — in a lap-dancing club, receiving a private dance. Repeatedly, and contrary to the club policy, he puts his hands on the woman dancing for him. Club manager Jay Shah told the Mail that Nawaz was “asking her to touch him and he was touching her . . . In general he was quite persistent with her, asking to take her out and for her number.” Let’s note that Shah’s concern for the women working on his premises didn’t seem to extend to actually ejecting the man breaking the rules, before we move on to enjoying Feminist Maajid Nawaz’s public response to these revelations.
Firstly, Feminist Maajid Nawaz tweeted a picture of his wife with the caption “Don’t ya wish your wifey. was. hot. like. mine? …. Don’t ya? … Don’t ya?” But not satisfied with this salvo of patriarchy smashing, Feminist Maajid Nawaz released a statement on Facebook explaining that his lapdance was no contradiction with his feminism — it was, if anything, a perfect expression of his feminism. After all, it’s not as if he killed anyone: “In current times, our moral uproar is best reserved for those who aspire to stone men or women to death, not those who consensually watch women, or men for that matter, dance.” Ah, there’s that word: consensually. Nawaz, you see, is a choice feminist. “My feminism, as intended by me, extends to empowering women to make legal choices, not to judge the legal choices they make. My fight is for rights.”
And if women choose to dance for men in an upholstered broom cupboard, for twenty pounds a go, by God Nawaz will fight for that right. In fact, he’ll even make the choice easier by supplying the twenty pounds himself! That’s how much of a feminist Feminist Maajid Nawaz is. What does the “choice” to work in a nightclub look like for the women who do it? Firstly, they’re usually not actually employed by the club: it’s standard for them to pay the club a fee, which they then need to make back before they can break even on their night’s work. This incentivises women to tolerate rule-breakers as they compete with each other for business, and because the house has made its money either way, there’s limited incentive for the bouncers to protect the women who work there from the grabby patrons.
The women have to get used to being picked over, compared and rated. “They call you names, comment on your body, or your cellulite, and certainly [I know] from other women’s experiences, comment on your genitalia saying ‘that’s big’,” one dancer told the Guardian. “In my personal life if men said to me, ‘I’m really into black girls,’ I would think, ‘what an arsehole,’ because they are treating you as a species and as though all black women are identical. But in a lap-dancing club it’s almost inevitable — you are reduced to your component parts.” According to the same woman, plastic surgery is common, and coke and booze are almost universal recourses for the dancers. The dance might be “consensual”, but it seems there are some things that women struggle to “consent” to without a little self-medication.
Lapdancing is a kind of entertainment that trades on power — men’s power over women, the economic supremacy that gives men the disposable income to buy a woman right out of her clothes, the ritualised submission of the naked women pantomiming sexual frenzy for the men in suits, the little assertions of possession that comes every time a man crosses the line and puts his hand on the skin he’s paying to see. Feminism is the politics of rejecting men’s power over us. Not eroticising that power, not exploiting it to rinse a little cash benefit out of our own inferiority, but refusing it. (CYBAF and a lap dancer? Wrong question. Ask instead how feminism can tolerate any situation where men are able to buy the “right” to treat us like this.)
Nawaz’s “feminism” is a hollow parody of the women’s movement. He proudly proclaims his support for all the choices a woman can make, especially the choices that might give him an erection, but never asks why it should be women who have this “choice” to gyrate unclothed for men they wouldn’t let within sniffing distance unpaid. Nawaz can back the “right” of men to dance too, but not wonder why men never avail themselves of this precious liberty. Because Nawaz, of course, is not a feminist. He’s just one more man pinning the label on himself like a set of nipple tassels and twirling them to distract the audience from the fact that he’s got a giant hard-on for his own power.